Reporters that work in the news business long enough usually have their fair share of interviews with famous people. In my 33 years as a professional journalist, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview movie stars, TV personalities and sports phenoms in addition to coverage of three presidents.
Opportunities to do high-profile interviews sometimes come down to dumb luck but realistically, it usually has something to do with your location, the newspaper’s circulation and your beat.
I’d really have to dig deep to figure out my first famous person interview because I don’t really keep track of such things. It might’ve been during the summer of 1987 in between my junior and senior years of college. I landed an internship at the McCook Daily Gazette, located in a city of around 8,000 or so in southwestern Nebraska.
One day in the newsroom, the editor received word that a plane carrying Davy Jones was going to make an emergency landing at McCook’s tiny airport. I can’t remember how I ended up with the assignment over the experienced reporters but I headed out to the airport to figure out what to ask a television personality that had just been forced to land in a small Nebraska town — if he would even talk to me.
I had watched Jones in reruns of “The Monkees” during my youth and recall him appearing in episodes of a few other shows. In the overall scheme, not exactly a TV superstar, but a recognizable face that many of us old-timers will remember.
He walked into the airport terminal and I got into reporter mode to approach him for an interview. I remember him being very nice and answering my questions although he might’ve been a bit shaken because of whatever issue the plane was having. But what I remember most was his height.
I’m 5-foot-8 and I was looking down at Mr. Jones. Watching television, especially back in the days of smaller screens that were definitely not high-definition, you don’t get a true sense of their physical appearance. I’m not making fun of the man’s height, it’s just a memory that I find amusing. I had to look it up just now and I see that he was only 5-foot-3 (he passed away in 2012).
The majority of my career has involved sports coverage and I’ve interviewed top athletes from Derek Jeter in pinstripes to Barry Sanders during his Heisman run. But I’d have to say my most memorable also occurred during my earlier years in the profession.
Nebraska and Miami were matched up to meet in the 1989 Orange Bowl and as one of the reporters on the Huskers beat, I went to Miami to cover the game. The newspaper sent me down a week ahead of kickoff to write a series of preview stories and features.
During an opportunity to conduct interviews with Hurricane coaches and players, a few of us were able to corner Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson for a few questions. As a young reporter, you often get nervous about a question coming out wrong or the experienced, veteran writers laughing at you because you asked something stupid.
Well, I wanted to know if Jimmy Johnson felt uneasy in any way because he was going up against Nebraska — a team that he had never beaten in five tries while he was the coach at Oklahoma State. I must’ve hit a nerve because he gave me the dirtiest look while aggressively answering the question.
The 23-year-old reporter got a national championship coach worked up for a second (Miami won the title in 1987, finished runner-up in 1988). It’s silly, I suppose, but it’s one of those early memories.
I’ve written in the past about times I’ve covered presidential visits — Reagan in 1987, Clinton in 2000, Bush in 2002. The most memorable had to have been Reagan’s visit to Buffalo Bill Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska.
In attendance at the event along with the newspaper’s editor, he asked me to try to shoot some photos. I headed toward a set of bleachers that had been set up for newspaper photographers but a Secret Service officer stopped me and started asking questions. You needed a photographer’s pass to be in that area.
I went back to where my editor was standing and he gave me his press credential. So I headed back toward the bleachers and burned a roll before the Secret Service guy spotted me again. He asked me where I got the pass, ejected me from the area and told me I’d be escorted out of the event entirely if he caught me there again.
Luckily, I got a few good photos during my brief time on the bleachers.
Working as editor of the Grand Canyon News provided me with several opportunities to cross paths with famous people. I believe my favorite was an interview with Patrick Swayze. He and his co-stars — Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron and Natasha Richardson — were shooting scenes at one of the viewpoints at the Canyon for a film entitled, “Waking Up in Reno.”
Swayze, of course, reached pretty good heights with his movie career, although I don’t believe “Waking Up in Reno” was one of them. Anyway, I went out to the movie set and actually was able to watch a few takes from a distance.
During a break, I started requesting interviews. Thornton and Theron declined but Swayze was all in. We walked over to a private spot where we could talk and he ended up being one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I mean, he was genuinely nice, even asking questions with an interest in me.
One thing I noticed was that the entire time we talked, he was smoking cigarettes. Seven or eight years later when Swayze died from cancer, I had read that he was a heavy smoker, even as many as 60 cigarettes a day. He was only 57 when he died.
That’s a look at a few of my most memorable brushes with so-called famous people. I don’t know if I’ll come across any such opportunities here in Philomath, but interviewing the famous is not why I’m in this profession. I have plenty of great memories doing those everyday interviews with a lot of very interesting people that also leave an impression. I’m sure there are more to come.
(Brad Fuqua is publisher and editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).